Palo Duro

Here is something we learned after spending a night camping in the bottom of a sun-baked Texas gorge: no matter what the United States Army Field Manual 21–76 says, it is not advisable to attempt to brew a refreshing tea from the prickly pear cactus without prior experience.

We’d spent about two days traversing the northern swath of Texas. The landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen in the South: a Mars-like terrain of parched, blood-red earth, stretching toward the horizon for what looked and felt like infinity. Save for a few craggy spots, it was flat and uninterrupted. So flat, you could truly see for miles. Shortly after we crossed the border from Oklahoma, a small white cross appeared in our dashboard window. It stayed there for about twenty miles, looming and growing bigger until we made it all the way to Groom, Texas, home of a 19-story cross — the largest in the Western hemisphere, or so they claim.

This was unfamiliar territory. Any camping we’d done up to this point had taken place in thick mountain woods — not in a rugged, barren, unforgiving desert. The newness of our surroundings sunk in as we arrived at Palo Duro State Park, home to what locals call “the Grand Canyon of Texas.” The park ranger’s office, where we picked up our pass, was spitting distance from the ledge of the canyon. In my trusty, lovingly dented Chevy Blazer, we began the rather unnerving process of corkscrewing our way down the canyon to our campsite at the bottom of the gorge. We felt like spiders scaling a wall.

That afternoon, we got the itch to explore. My rudimentary understanding of middle school geology led me to believe that where there’s a canyon, there’s water — and we were hot. I could hear a creek trickling not too far from our campsite. Equipped with water bottles and Jerry, we set out to find it, frothing in anticipation of a cool dip in a quiet stream. We tediously picked our way through the thorny scrub and cacti and sweated away every last drop of our DEET. It would be another 45 minutes or so before we realized that the sound was just the wind whipping through the dry brush.

Unfettered and still in need of some respite from the heat, we took on another ambitious experiment: a recipe for prickly pear tea from the Army FM 21–76. This cactus was abundant, and the manual described the elixir as “refreshing,” so we didn’t hesitate. With the help of sturdy work gloves and a hatchet, we retrieved a few barbed paddles and attempted to remove the prickles. Days later, when we crossed into the Upper Peninsula, we were still removing its needles from our skin.

Around the campfire that night, as the stick of the hot air dissipated into a cool desert chill, it sunk in. This was what we came for. Anyone could pack a car full of camping gear and head two hours north of Atlanta for a lush campsite in the foothills of the Appalachians. But this, sitting in the dark surrounded by flora and fauna and terrain we’d never before seen, was what we’d been looking for.

I woke up in the middle of the night to a riot of noise outside our tent, and panic inside. Jerry, our mutt, was standing on his hind legs, desperately angling for a view out of the mesh tip of our tent, scraping at the nylon. As I tried to calm him down, I heard it: a quiet rush, then a rumble, and then a low, growing thunder of paws on the earth — dozens of them, punctuated by a few triumphant yips. A pack of coyotes, running like hell in perfect choreography, feet from our tent. So close, the breeze they churned sent a light tremble through the tent’s fabric. I pinned Jerry to my chest. Both of our hearts were like hummingbirds’. The pack passed our site with a whoosh, oblivious to our presence (or maybe they just felt merciful). Jerry was vibrating with yearning or fight, I couldn’t tell which. Maybe both. I felt like I’d just been shot with currents of electricity.

When I woke up the next morning, it was to the sounds of shrill barks and hollers echoing off the canyon walls. A call and response: one pack would send up their cacophony and another on a distant ridge would answer. This time, Jerry stayed calm, and Dane stayed asleep. I laid still and listened. It felt a little like eavesdropping; we soft, domesticated creatures observing these wild things from afar.